North Battleford, Sask. needs social action — not more police — to shake 'Crimetown' rep

In North Battleford, we have one more tradition at this time of year: topping the annual list of cities in Maclean’s magazine’s Most Dangerous Places to Live.

Maclean's magazine recently named North Battleford Canada's most dangerous places to live

Four Community Safety Officers and three RCMP members arrest two men outside the North Battleford Public Library on June 29, 2018. (Benedict Feist)

It's fall in North Battleford, Sask. In most Canadian cities that means crunchy leaves, complaining about the first snowfall and pulling your sweaters out of storage. 

Here in North Battleford, we have one more tradition at this time of year: topping the annual list of cities in Maclean's magazine's Most Dangerous Places to Live. This year, it came hot on the heels of a CTV W5 piece about our city titled Crimetown.

Taken out of context, crime statistics can paint our city as out-of-control, with threat and violence at every turn, but reality does not always match headlines. 

As proud residents of North Battleford, we can attest that our city is by-and-large a bright, vibrant, progressive and safe community. People walk on city streets and community trails all day long. Folks know their neighbours. Community events are well attended. Youth groups come to your door to offer Girl Guide cookies, collect bottles and sell raffle tickets.  

Day-to-day life is pleasant but unremarkable. We don't know where "Crimetown" is, but we certainly don't live there.

North Battleford is, however, a community caught in a long-standing, self-reinforcing narrative surrounding the city's perceived crime problem. Crime stories are extensively shared. Numerous Facebook groups provide an ongoing drip of information about crime, petty or severe.  

The Battlefords do have a serious issue: deep-rooted and unaddressed poverty.- Rob Feist and Ben Feist

Regionally and nationally, the Battlefords have been mined for stories about our crime severity numbers that draw eyeballs but ignore root causes. Media narratives present a community under siege. Every report of crime brings the clamour for additional crime response. 

That clamour calls on municipal and provincial governments to provide an answer on crime. So far the answer has been consistent: allocate more taxpayer money to policing.  

The cost-sharing formula for policing between different levels of government is complex. The 2018 City of North Battleford budget reveals the policing expenditure, which is shared 70/30 between the municipal and federal governments, is an annual $7.25 million for 59 RCMP officers. Saskatchewan funds another $770,000 for what it calls "targeted enforcement." A further $750,000 is paid for seven additional Community Safety Officers. Another $1.6 million from the province was recently committed to "Crime Reduction Teams" in Prince Albert and North Battleford, placing an estimated five more RCMP officers in the Battlefords.  

Just across the river in the Town of Battleford, RCMP coverage costs taxpayers $297,700, a separate budget expenditure for a force operating from the same North Battleford headquarters. So while the money comes from different pots, for different reasons, total policing cost to taxpayers approaches $10 million for a population of less than 20,000 people.

Progressively heavier policing has not reduced crime in our city. In fact, crime rates have seen a fluctuating increase over the past decade. Police target minor and often regulatory offences, which in turn shapes high crime statistics and results in yet more outcry for more policing.  

With that ongoing outcry, more money is directed back to policing, courts, prosecutions and probation workers, and away from poverty reduction and social supports. As a result, crime worsens, along with the situation of those most at risk for criminalization.

That worsened situation shapes a greater risk for crime, bringing about more actual crime, focusing media and community attention back to criminality, leading to more calls for solutions and more policing. The cycle has been self-reinforcing and appears never-ending.

Problems can't be policed away

All of that said, the Battlefords do have a serious issue: deep-rooted and unaddressed poverty. It stems from income inequality, a slow resource-extraction economy, historical colonization issues facing local First Nations communities and a depleted social safety net.  

Crime is only a symptom of that issue. The well-documented overrepresentation in our local criminal justice system of people with mental health issues, Indigenous people, young people and those living in poverty underlines that core issues are being missed.

The bottom line is that recognizing poverty, not criminality, as the root problem is key to finding solutions. Many good people in our community are already working hard to build those solutions, but their work cannot foster broad-based, long-term results without governmental interventions our community badly needs: 

  • A stabilizing homelessness strategy, centered around our Lighthouse, with both overnight and day-programming for a growing homeless population.
  • Adequate safe housing for those experiencing homelessness once stabilized.
  • Mental health, addictions, and detoxification funding that ensures anyone needing a mental health or treatment bed receives one and anyone needing emergency counselling receives the same.
  • A focus on bringing more Indigenous judges, lawyers, and other criminal justice system actors into the Battlefords.
  • Well-funded, accessible, and robust early childhood intervention programming.
  • A funding shift into educational, extracurricular and family supports for area youth, with robust gang prevention and exit strategies.
  • Minimum-wage laws and income supports that shift citizens away from the margins of poverty and ensure basic income security.

As long as we remain reactionary in our response to crime, change will not come. We will continue to see our city used as a statistical curiosity, with media using our numbers, not our stories, to write headlines.

More important, we will continue to see the lower property values, higher taxes, social disharmony, bad reputation and human cost that come with failure on this issue. If we want to be smart and make change, we need to recognize that our "crime problem" is a deep-rooted inequality problem and implement public policy solutions accordingly.  

We, as a community, are caught in a cycle that only smart social action can break. Breaking that cycle is long overdue.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ

Rob Feist (left) and Ben Feist. (Supplied)

About the Author

Rob Feist and Ben Feist are North Battleford lawyers, born and raised on a farm near the now-extinct hamlet of Thackeray. The Feist Brothers practice at Norsasklaw in North Battleford. Rob ran for the Saskatchewan NDP in the 2016 provincial election.


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